Gardening in 3-D: Growing Vertical Greens

Turn over a new leaf with these nutritional powerhouses for your kitchen, which can be grown vertically to maximize garden space.

| June 2015

  • Vertical Gardens
    Relaxing in the shade of a leafy home garden.
    Photo courtesy New Society Publishers
  • Trellis
    Vine spinach, gourds, hyacinth beans, and rice beans climbing a large trellis.
    Photo courtesy New Society Publishers
  • Eat Your Greens
    This innovative guide shows how familiar garden plants such as sweet potato, okra, beans peas and pumpkins can be grown to provide both nourishing leaves and other calorie- and protein-rich foods.
    Cover courtesy New Society Publishers

  • Vertical Gardens
  • Trellis
  • Eat Your Greens

With more nutrients per calorie and square foot of growing space than any other food, leaf crops can be an invaluable addition to every yard or garden. As hardy as they are versatile, these beautiful, tasty vegetables range from the familiar to the exotic. Some part of this largely untapped food resource can thrive in almost any situation. Eat Your Greens by David Kennedy (New Society Publishers, 2014), provides complete instructions for incorporating these nutritional powerhouses into any kitchen garden.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Eat Your Greens: The Surprising Power of Home Grown Leaf Crops

Light Energy

A constantly replenished wave of light leaves the surface of the sun, races across 93,000,000 miles of swirling space in less than nine minutes and lands on the tender green surface of a living plant. A few trillionths of a second later, the chlorophyll in the leaf has used that photon bit of energy to combine carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen from earth’s abundant air and water into sugar, the sweet fuel of life. From this simple sugar are formed complex sugars, starches, and fibers. Plants store the energy from the sunshine in their stems, roots, and fruits. Gardeners and farmers try to manage this biological solar energy collection operation in ways that benefit them. Simply climbing a hill gave me a useful perspective on this important undertaking.

From a hillside overlooking forests and corn fields in late spring, the forest appeared as a plush unbroken carpet of 50 shades of green, while the young corn looked like green lines marked across a sheet of brown paper. Clearly, the forest had more leaves basking in the sunshine than the corn. By late August, the verdant forest was looking down on a cornfield that had already produced all the corn it could and now held lifeless amber waves of grain drying in prime farmland. Yet this cornfield was the culmination of modern agricultural science — dependent on tractors, genetically modified seeds, herbicides, insecticides, and synthetic fertilizers — while the green forest was simply neglected and ignored.

An acre of forest has more surface area of green leaves more of the year than an acre in grain crops. This enables it to produce far more biomass, or living substance. The ratio of the surface area of green leaf to the surface area of the ground below it is called the Leaf Area Index (LAI). As a general rule, high LAIs correlate with high net productivity in any terrestrial ecosystem. (Aquatic ecosystems are usually powered by photosynthetic algae rather than leaves.)

Logic would suggest that an LAI above 1.0 is not possible because one square meter of leaf would intercept all of the sunshine falling on one square meter of ground. However, some ecosystems, such as pine forests, actually have LAIs as high as 10. Try reading something in the very shadiest spot in a park or a forest at midday. Despite a seemingly complete cover of tree leaves overhead, your eyes will still intercept enough sunlight to be able to read. Shade isn’t darkness. Some of the incoming photons bounce off the leaves back out into space; some pass directly through the thin leaves; and some bounce around until they find your eyes. Logic doesn’t appreciate how energetic, quick, and bouncy light energy is.

7/6/2015 12:24:06 PM

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